Public Diplomacy Effort Aims to Clarify U.S. Misperceptions

Syria has launched a major public diplomacy effort to revive relations with the United States.

“We need to reach out to the American public in general, and particularly to Americans of Syrian descent, but it’s not only an outreach program,” said Bouthaina Shaaban, Syrian Minister of Expatriates. “This public diplomacy effort means explaining to the American administration, to the Congress, to the Senate where we stand, what we believe in. There are lots of misperceptions and misinformation about Syria.”

Since the beginning of the Iraq war, Syrian officials in Washington and Damascus say the United States has greeted their attempts at dialogue and conciliation with a cold shoulder, despite growing criticism in the U.S. for such a position.

“We hope that the United States reaches the wisdom that it is only through dialogue that you can narrow the gap that exists between you and others, not through sanctions and isolation,” said Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, who was Syria’s ambassador to Washington for most of the 1990s.

One of the most damaging accusations circulating now, Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha said, is that Syria is allowing insurgents to cross into Iraq from its territory.

“We have repeatedly said publicly and in every political meeting and in every venue that this is not true. We would not allow this to happen. It’s against our own national interests. It causes damage to the Iraqi people, who are our brothers and sisters,” he said. “We are inviting an important superpower like the United States to stop accusing Syria publicly through the media. Come and sit with us so we can discuss the problem. We have repeatedly said that we have the political will and the commitment to find a solution.”

In July 2005, Syria invited diplomats and foreign correspondents in Damascus to visit the border and see firsthand the government’s efforts to secure it. The United States was the only embassy that declined to send a representative.

“On our side, we have built a huge sand barrier that never existed before. We have installed barbed wire, three layers of barbed wire, in certain areas. We have increased the number of border guards by tenfold. We have almost 10,000 soldiers guarding the Syria-Iraq border now, working in extremely harsh conditions—terrible heat, desert area, really inhumane conditions. On the other side of the border, there is not a single human being, not a single American soldier,” Moustapha explained.

“It does not seem fair. They want to throw the whole issue on us—an issue that was never there in the first place. They want us to bear the responsibility and burden of this, and they don’t want to do anything. We’re not claiming that we have hermetically sealed the border. What we’re saying is that we are doing the utmost possible from our side.”

Moustapha said that while top U.S. Senators and Congressmen are advocating engagement with Syria, the U.S. administration, in stark contrast to the Baker-Hamilton Report recommendations, is staunchly entrenched in its ideological positions about “rogue-states,’ “‘axis of evil,” and a dogmatic non-engaging position that is counter-productive for all parties involved.

It is a frustrating scenario, Moustapha added, and one that sometimes makes him feel like Don Quixote fighting windmills. “We do not believe that America is an enemy to the Arab people or that we are enemies to America. For ages, for years, I have never heard a Syrian saying they hate America. They would say, ‘I strongly, strongly disagree with American policies,’ but they never say they hate America. That does not exist in our culture.”

The public diplomacy effort also involves stepping up interaction with the U.S. Congress, the media, universities and think tanks, Moustapha noted.

Foreign Minister al-Moualem said he sees the U.S. agenda in the Middle East as the following: “Iraq is priority number one. Iraq is priority number two. And Iraq is priority number three.

“It is not helping stability and security in the region,” he continued. “In this region, issues are related. To win peace with Israel is related to the situation in the Iraq. In this region, building peace with Israel is an element in combating terrorism. Tackling the root and causes of terrorism also means addressing poverty, the lack of hope for the future.”

While ambassador in Washington, Moualem was a key player in Syria’s decade-long peace negotiations with Israel. Those talks fell through in 2000 despite the two sides having come “very close” to a final agreement, he said.

“The peace plan was based on the fair principle of ‘land for peace;’ the same premise adopted by the U.N., and by the Arab League Summit where all Arab leaders offered Israel comprehensive peace and normalization of relations in return for the Syrian and Lebanese territories, and a free and sovereign Palestinian state. Israel has flatly rejected this peace offer.

“The Israelis always gave the excuse that their internal political situation did not allow them to go ahead. And this always happened at the last minute,” al-Moualem said.

Yet he still has hope. “If you are a peaceful man, you must always keep hope. But frankly speaking, if I judge the situation according to Israeli politics, I have no hope. Only when people believe that peace is in their own interest and peace is the only option … then we can make this happen. Unfortunately the Israelis still believe that their military superiority is a guarantee for solving problems.”

“Because the stakes are so high for the security and stability of both countries, peace must remain an option,” said al-Moualem. “Each leader has to convince his people that peace is the option that guarantees security, prosperity and acceptance on both sides of the other. This is, in my opinion, the meaning of peace.”

About the Author

Imad Moustapha, Ambassador of Syria to the United States